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:: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

After having a lean time over the last fifteen years (with the exception of ‘Match Point’), Woody Allen spectacularly returns to form with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” his funniest movie in years and arguably his sexiest. Going where the money is, Allen moved his latest production from London to Barcelona, where the sunny landscape and Antoni Gaudi's spectacular architecture seem to have provided the inspiration he's been lacking.

The title refers to two attractive young American women spending a summer in Barcelona: Vicky (Rebecca Hall), who is engaged and looks forward to the security of a steady marriage, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who yearns for a torrid romance. Within moments, we know that Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a student of Spanish architecture, in Barcelona to study the Gaudi buildings, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is along for the adventure. She wants thrills and excitement. One night they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a sexy Spanish artist who brazenly invites them both to spend a passionate weekend with him in the country. Vicky is appalled, but Cristina is interested, and they end up stepping into the lion's den.

From here, the movie measures the complications that ensue as each of the two women has a fling with the smoldering Spaniard, and the eruption that occurs when his fiery, self-destructive artist ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), suddenly enters the picture.

Rebecca Hall is a newcomer to the big time feature film and she is splendid as the more conventional of the protagonists. As Vicky she is launched as a young actress of rare maturity and intelligence. Scarlett Johansson, in the riskiest yet of her three Allen film roles, is even better. She is never more relaxed or appealing or less self-conscious than she is in Allen's movies. Meanwhile, Allen's Spanish stars are as effective and appealing as they've ever been in an English-language film. Bardem is all slow-moving Catalan charm, and Cruz, with her exploding temper tantrums and outbursts of feminine fury, is simply magnificent. As Maria Elena, Cruz is on fire - hysterically funny, abandoned, passionate, poignant, with a performance wide in range. Allen is famous for not directing his actors, for letting them sink or swim. The actors who thrive are the ones who take this as license to let go.

With able support from Patricia Clarkson, as a family friend of Vicky's, living in Spain and living in pain over her own unhappy marriage, Vicky Cristina Barcelona covers familiar Allen territory: The film offers an exploration of romantic longing, of men and women falling in and out of love, behaving foolishly, and badly.

Clearly, Allen has been inspired by his location, and his film also serves as an evocative travelogue of Spain's most magical city. Also helping make “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” go down smoothly is Javier Aguireesarobe's sun-dappled photography and a soundtrack of catchy Spanish songs.